Never have I seen a major Australian city come so alive and show her human side as Sydney did during World Youth Day! In spite of the odd negative media commentary, this event was the most positive thing to happen to Sydney in a long time.
Youth from around the world gathered in Sydney for the much anticipated arrival of Pope Benedict XVI. So why does this intelligent, humble and holy man in his eighties engender such a joyous response from the world's young people, one usually reserved for rock stars? Apart from the fact that Benedict is Peter's successor, he stands for and speaks to what expectant youth of the Church are looking for: truth and love.
The Pope had a message for the youth of the world when he arrived in Sydney on 17 July: 'Our world has grown weary of greed, exploitation and division, of the tedium of false idols and piecemeal responses, and the pain of false promises. Our hearts and minds are yearning for a vision of life where love endures, where gifts are shared, where unity is built, where freedom finds meaning in truth, and where identity is found in respectful communion. This is the work of the Holy Spirit! This is the hope held out by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is to bear witness to this reality that you were created anew at baptism and strengthened through the gifts of the Spirit at confirmation. Let this be the message that you bring from Sydney to the world!'
World Youth Day 2008 was a packed program of worship, education, youth events and endless opportunities to make friends in faith from around the world. It was a time to contemplate God and one's faith and share that journey with others. For secular, cynical Sydney, awash with 300,000 pilgrims - laity, priests and religious in their distinctive attire - it was like being flooded with the joy and grace of the Christmas season - on steroids!
During WYD08, society visibly changed; Sydney seemed more human with people looking at other people, communicating, smiling, waving and helping strangers. The joy of the pilgrims was infectious. The Holy Spirit was very much in action.
Stories of true hospitality abound throughout WYD08. I was one of the leaders of a pilgrim group from St Andrew's parish, Werribee, Victoria. We were billeted at St Joseph's Primary School in Belmore, NSW. When we arrived, we were made to feel most welcome. Our food passes did not come into effect until the next day, so the parish put on a huge barbeque for us, while parishioners young and old introduced themselves and started chatting to us.
Special mention must go to the Principal, Patricia Laidler, and Vice Principal, Greg ('let me see what I can do') Kiernan. They were wonderful hosts; nothing was ever a problem. Congratulations also to Dominique Farah, who led a very talented 'Activation Team' in singing 'Activate!'as a part of our welcome. St Joseph's was a contender in the competition to create the WYD08 theme song, which was won by Guy Sebastian and Gary Pinto with 'Receive the Power'.
St Joseph's may not have won the song competition, but Jesus is one of their parishioners! Literally! The very talented Alfio Stuto, who won the coveted role of Jesus in the Stations of the Cross performance, is from St Joseph's parish and they are justifiably proud!
One of many highlights, for me, was attending along with 3,000 others the Christopher West presentations on Pope John Paul II's 'Theology of the Body'. In an enlightening and entertaining series of talks, he spoke of the complementarity of the sexes, explaining that equalising our sexual differences is a recipe for cultural suicide.
Christopher explained the union between man and woman in marriage as symbolic of the union between Christ, the bridegroom, and the Church, his bride. He spoke about love and sex in a way that totally refuted the public misconception that the Church is anti-sex. Freedom, truth and love - that's what the world needs to hear about. Christopher speaks in a way the secular world can understand - and was rewarded with standing ovations.
A packed auditorium of youth (and young at heart) obviously 'got it'. I recommend that journalists and other commentators educate themselves in the truth: a set of Christopher West CDs would be a good start. Perhaps the reason much of the secular world was bound to miss the point of World Youth Day is that, without Jesus, humanity cannot be united in truth and love.
Deborah Baker is the Graphic Designer and Production Co-ordinator at the Thomas More Centre, Melbourne.